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New guidelines for cervical cancer screening say women should delay their first Pap test until age 21, and be screened less often than recommended in the past.

The advice, from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is meant to decrease unnecessary testing and potentially harmful treatment, particularly in teenagers and young women. The group’s previous guidelines had recommended yearly testing for young women, starting within three years of their first sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21.

Arriving on the heels of hotly disputed guidelines calling for less use of mammography, the new recommendations might seem like part of a larger plan to slash cancer screening for women. But the timing was coincidental, said Dr. Cheryl B. Iglesia, the chairwoman of a panel in the obstetricians’ group that developed the Pap smear guidelines. The group updates its advice regularly based on new medical information, and Iglesia said the latest recommendations had been in the works for several years, “long before the Obama health plan came into existence.”

She called the timing crazy, uncanny and “an unfortunate perfect storm,” adding, “There’s no political agenda with regard to these recommendations.”

Iglesia said the argument for changing Pap screening was more compelling than that for cutting back on mammography – which the obstetricians’ group has — opposed — because there is more potential for harm from the overuse of Pap tests.

The reason is that young women are especially prone to develop abnormalities in the cervix that appear to be precancerous, but that will go away if left alone. But when Pap tests find the growths, doctors often remove them, with procedures that can injure the cervix and lead to problems later when a woman becomes pregnant, including premature birth and an increased risk of needing a Caesarean.

Still, the new recommendations for Pap tests are likely to feed a political debate in Washington over health care overhaul proposals. The mammogram advice led some Republicans to predict that such recommendations would lead to rationing.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who is a physician, said in an interview that he would continue to offer Pap smears to sexually active young women. Democratic proposals to involve the government more deeply in the nation’s health care system, he said, would lead the new mammography, Pap smear and other guidelines to be adopted without regard to patient differences, hurting many people. “These are going to be set in stone,” Coburn said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., a longtime advocate for cancer screening, said in an interview: “And this Pap smear guideline is yet another cut back in screening? That is curious.” He said Congress was committed to increasing cancer screenings, not limiting them.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the new guidelines would have no effect on federal policy and that “Republicans are using these new recommendations as a distraction.”

“Making such arguments, especially at this critical point in the debate, merely clouds the very simple issue that our health reform bill would increase access to care for millions of women across the country,” she said.